11

I WON’T SAY IT brought down the whole house. Mac didn’t look tremendously surprised, and SolanaRuiz raised his eyebrows slightly, but allowed himself no other reaction. For all I knew, the Mexican had a language problem and wasn’t following the discussion in every detail.

But the flyboy general looked startled and interested, as if the idea I’d presented was totally new to him, and rather intriguing. And Leonard’s expression showed scornful disbelief, and indignation at my nerve in presenting such an outlandish excuse for my misbehavior, which was about as good a response as I could expect from him.

He demanded, “Do you really expect us to believe-” Bannister said irritably, “Oh, shut up, Herb! Save the rhetorical questions. Obviously he expects us to believe it or he wouldn’t have said it.” He looked at me. “Are you sure, son? Positive?”

I said, “Positive, no. But I was sure enough to refrain from pulling the trigger in spite of orders. It looked as if somebody had misjudged the situation completely-“

“The idea is ridiculous!” Leonard snapped. “If Harsek had wanted Mrs. O’Leary dead, he had plenty of time to shoot her himself.”

“I don’t think that’s quite the point,” Bannister said slowly. “I think friend Eric, here, has another thought in mind.”

“Yes, sir. I don’t think Harsek just wanted her dead. I think he wanted her dead at my hands-at the hands of an American agent.”

Bannister frowned. “Let’s go back a bit, son. You say you ‘discovered’ this. How?”

“I discovered it when the bullet-proof glass slid up between me and Harsek, and gas started hissing into the rear compartment of the taxi, quite audibly. That was the tip-off. A corny movie routine like that couldn’t possibly mean what it was supposed to mean. I don’t say the sealed-taxi gag hasn’t ever been used in real life, but it’s certainly never been used when it was important to immobilize the guy instantly, because there just isn’t any such gas as far as I know, and even if there is, they weren’t using it. It followed that they didn’t want me instantly unconscious. They wanted to give me just a little time before I passed out-time enough to do what they knew I had orders to do. There could be no other reason for them to telegraph their Sunday punch like that.”

Leonard said, “You’re just rationalizing after the fact! Probably they took a chance on using a rather slow and clumsy technique because they knew you had amorous reasons for not harming the young lady. At least they figured you’d hesitate-“

“On the contrary,” I said, “they had no reason to think I’d hesitate at all, that’s just the point. All their evidence pointed the other way. I’d warned them repeatedly about what I intended to do if they interfered. And I was the trigger-happy gent who’d just burned down a fellow-agent by mistake because I was so goddamn eager to kill. They had no reason to think I’d wait an instant, given the slightest excuse for puffing the trigger. So they gave it to me.” I looked at Bannister. “I’d been under the impression that this girl was valuable to them; that they had to have her alive and talking. When I discovered that was wrong… Well, it seemed best to keep the bullets in the gun until I learned the real score.”

The general drew a long breath. “As a matter of fact, son, the orders you received were a little more drastic than necessary or even desirable. Somebody in Washington flipped when he heard the girl’s tape, and decided to initiate emergency action without consulting anybody else, including me. So we’re not too unhappy about your results, or lack of them. Which of course doesn’t excuse you in the slightest.”

“No, sir.”

“Orders are supposed to be obeyed,” he said firmly. Then he grinned a little. “On the other hand, a little common sense isn’t a bad thing, particularly in situations involving life and death. Are you aware of what this girl saw, or says she saw, out there in the Gulf of California?”

“Yes, sir.”

Leonard demanded, “How did you learn that? It’s supposed to be very highly classified.”

I said wearily, “As you keep pointing out, Mr. Leonard, I spent the night with the kid. I had a bottle of bourbon and she was thirsty. After a while she started talking.”

“You got her tight and pumped her, in other words.” I shrugged. “Nothing in my orders said I couldn’t give a girl a drink.”

Bannister said, “You’re kind of an independent operator, aren’t you, Eric? I don’t know as I’d want you under my command.”

“No, sir,” I said, with a glance towards Mac. “Discipline means different things to different commanders, sir. And in our business we can’t always get on the radio and check with the home field. Anyway, nobody was telling me anything on this deal, so I figured I’d better find out a few things for myself.”

“Well, we’ll have you study the taped interview and see if the young lady changed any of her testimony under the influence of your whiskey. But having heard her story, what do you think of it?”

I looked at him for a moment, and let my eyes kind of swing towards Solana, and back. “Do you want me to be honest or diplomatic, sir?”

“We are keeping no secrets from our friends below the border, son. We have no secrets to keep, in this connection.”

“Sure,” I said. “Well, General, I figure there are three possibilities. One, the girl is lying through her teeth for reasons yet to be determined. Two, she saw a real mystery aircraft with forged markings crewed by men in fake uniforms. Three, she saw exactly what she says she saw, and it’s you who are a liar, sir; you’re trying to cover up something very hush that went wrong. No disrespect intended, of course.”

“Of course.” Bannister grimaced, and looked at Mac. “Your people lay it right on the line, don’t they?”

“They are supposed to, when asked. You asked.”

Bannister turned towards Solana. “You heard, Ramуn. Has this man covered the various possibilities considered by your government to explain this sighting and the others?”

“Si, General. He has expressed it very well. And you will forgive my saying that the last possibility is one that is being considered very seriously. Your official attitude towards these strange aerial manifestations has always suggested that you might have an ulterior motive for wanting them disregarded. I seem to recall UFO sightings officially explained as the planet Venus when that planet was not visible; and radar contacts explained as false readings due to temperature inversions when weather conditions precluded any such phenomena. We have studied the record carefully, General, and always the question arises: why would the U.S. Air Force go to such lengths to ridicule an UFO reports-if it has nothing of its own in the sky that it would like to hide?”

Obviously, Seсor Ramуn Solana-Ruiz had no language problem whatever. General Bannister winced.

“You’re picking at a sensitive nerve, Ramуn. I’ve inherited a loused-up mess. Now we’ve got the research boys up in Colorado trying to set things straight from the scientific end, while I’m supposed to keep the lid from blowing off in a military and diplomatic way.” He turned to me. “You, son. Do you believe in these goddamn saucers? I mean, real ones, not phonies with U.S.A.F. insignia on them?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“You’ve seen one?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Describe it.” When I had, he said, “Oh, the green fireballs. Well, we’ve got explanations for those, I think.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “It used to be marsh gas and now it’s electronic plasma or something.”

“Are you needling me, son?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “In a helpful way, sir, to emphasize what Seсor Solana just said: nobody believes your explanations now. You’re in the position of the boy who cried wolf, except that your people have for years been yelling at the top of their lungs that there’s no such animal as a wolf. And now folks who don’t like us are apparently getting smart and trying to cash in on the general lack of confidence in your pronouncements.”

“You think that’s what this Harsek was trying to do down in Mazatlбn?”

“It seems very likely, sir. He had a choice. Let’s assume for the moment that the O’Leary kid actually saw a flying machine of some kind land out there in the drink. Skip the question of whether she lied about the uniforms and markings; just say she did see something and, truthfully or otherwise, attributed it to the U.S.A. Getting wind of this, Harsek’s superiors would presumably be interested in two things: finding out as much as possible about the mystery machine itself, and making a propaganda profit from the girl’s story. And if it came to a choice, the propaganda she could furnish would be more important to them than the information.”

Leonard demanded, “Why? I should think they’d want to know everything they could find out… “

“Sure, but just how much technical information can you expect to get out of a scared girl who saw a strange aeronautical gadget for only a minute or two while she was up to her neck in salt water? How much real information about the thing have you got on your tape? Not much, I’ll bet. Anyway, it seems obvious that Harsek got instructions to build up the propaganda angle and let the information go, and that’s just what he tried to do.”

Leonard looked unconvinced. “By getting the girl shot?”

“By getting her shot by a U.S. agent,” I said. “Look, in itself, her story wasn’t much. I mean, even if she talked publicly, who’s going to take much stock in some weirdie a hysterical kid thinks she saw after jumping out of a burning boat that blew up practically on top of her? But if it gets around that the U.S. is taking her crazy yarn seriously enough to send a team of agents to silence her; if she’s actually killed and the American government assassin, me, is caught red-handed; then her wild story will begin to carry conviction, won’t it? And the communists will have a propaganda coup that’ll lose us a lot of friends in Seсor Solana’s country, where we haven’t got many to spare right now, the way I hear it. Am I right, Seсor?”

The Mexican said judiciously, “Certainly the rumor that an these strange sightings are due to secret American aircraft over Mexican territory is not doing the relations between our countries any good, Seсor. And an incident such as you describe, involving deliberate murder, would certainly have precipitated a great deal of angry talk about Yankee imperialism, perhaps even diplomatic action.”

I looked at General Bannister. “I gather from Seсor Solana’s remarks and yours that the dingus that went down off Mazatlбn isn’t the only one that’s been seen.”

Bannister smiled a bit thinly. “Gather what you like, son, just don’t ask questions.” He grimaced. “Well, is there anything else you’d like to contribute to the discussion before we boot you the hell out of here and talk about things you’re not supposed to know about?”

“I can’t think of anything, sir.”

“What about the O’Leary girl? You met her and talked with her. Do you feel she’s lying or telling the truth-what she thinks is the truth?”

“I don’t know, sir,” I said. “She’s a bright kid. She could be a very bright kid putting on a great act. Hell, she could be a skillful communist agent planted in Mazatlбn specifically to spread false and slanderous rumors about the U.S.A.”

“But you don’t think she is?”

I shrugged. “I didn’t feel I was dealing with an experienced pro, no, sir. I’d rate her at most as a talented amateur. And I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if she turned out to be just a redheaded kid who went fishing at the wrong time.”

Bannister glanced at Leonard. “I suppose she’s being checked.”

“Yes, sir. I have a preliminary report right here. There are some rather interesting things: for instance, both the girl and her deceased husband seem to have been members of a peace group while studying at the University of-“

“Half the kids in college these days seem to have joined those movements,” Bannister said impatiently. “Anyway, the man was killed in Vietnam, wasn’t he? Apparently his scruples weren’t strong enough to keep him out of combat. Well, keep checking and let me know what turns up. Eric.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Mr. Leonard will give you a transcript of the taped interview. I want you to sit down somewhere and read it carefully. See if it agrees with the story you were told. Make note of any discrepancies. Keep yourself handy. We’ll have new instructions for you shortly… and, Eric.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Obviously you did quite right not to shoot. That gets you off the hook. You can get away with a lot of things as long as you’re right.” He grinned briefly. “But the independent way you operate, you’d damn well not be wrong, son, ever. Remember that.”

“Yes, sir.”

I got a manila folder from Leonard. Mac gave me a key and I went down the hall to his room to do my homework and wait for my orders. I had a hunch they’d be dillies. They were.

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